A/N - Thank you all for your lovely notes and kind words - I'm glad you're enjoying it as much as I've enjoyed all of your work. For those of you who write stories about Mary, I salute you... she's really hard, but that's probably why I'm on #teamMary.
Any Other World 2/7
It hurt, and it itched, and it smelled.
Mary did not mind the pain, and she could tolerate the itch, but the smell was killing her. The cast had only been on for two weeks, and she had at least four more to go in the plaster monstrosity that bound her left hand and wrist, reeking of liniment and damp, not-quite-clean flesh. It smelled of the convalescent wards she'd neatly managed to avoid working in during the past two years, even though those wards were inside her own home.
It wasn't the wounds and illness, but rather the agony of desperation that made her stay away, the cloud of "if only" hanging over the soldiers. It was as if she could hear them thinking, "if only I hadn't turned, if only I'd gone with my friend, if only I'd taken one more step... I wouldn't have lost my hand... my arm... my eyes."
She knew all too well the agonies of "if only."
If only... and she wouldn't have lost her heart, her reputation.
But she had, and it meant that the man in the room on the other side of the house wanted nothing to do with her.
Eleven days ago, he'd come home.
Eleven nights ago, he'd called for her.
Mary had not laid eyes on him since, because he never called for her again.
She had barely made it into her room when the pain in her hand roiled her stomach and she was sick in her basin, pathetically so, the scent making her heave again and again to the point of tears.
"M'lady?" The soft voice broke through her wretchedness and she looked up to see Anna, a wet cloth at the ready. "Mrs. Crawley said you might need me."
And Mary broke down, sobbing freely as Anna bathed her face and put her in her favorite chair, the tears coming even harder when Anna discovered her hand.
"I fell," she mumbled, pulling it back.
"Out the window?" was Anna's initial response, but when Mary would explain no further, Anna left it alone. Mary did not bother to watch as Anna washed it, feeling rather than seeing the cold fingers tracing the bruise line that looked exactly like what it was... a handprint, marking her.
Dr. Clarkson was stunned by it, initially insisting that she be moved downstairs. "You'll need something for the pain," he told her. But she refused, both the morphine he offered, and the unwelcome idea of being sick in public. So she stayed in her favorite chair and Dr. Clarkson set the bone, causing pain far worse than the initial injury, and wound the plaster around it himself, aided only by Anna, as Mary simply sat there, staring at nothing, tears coursing down her cheeks and an inexplicable smile playing around her mouth.
Matthew was alive. He was alive, and he loved her.
She had dreamed of him before she awoke, thinking she could hear him saying her name. But all was silent in the heavy darkness of her room, and the oppressiveness of it forced her to do what she had done night after night over the past few months when she couldn't go back to sleep.
In years past, one wouldn't dream of just getting up and wandering, but like most things in 1918, what happened in the past just didn't matter. She would pace the low-lit upstairs halls, wandering into the makeshift library her father had created on the second floor to make room for game boards and more popular books in what was now the recreation room for the recovering soldiers. She'd never been much for serious reading, preferring novels to histories, but over the past few months of sleepless nights, she'd found comfort in darker books, if not the peace she was seeking.
That night, she never made it to the library.
As she turned the corner, she heard what she thought she heard in her dream, faint and almost unrecognizable, but more beautiful than any music.
She did not even think to knock, but as she set her eyes on him for the first time from the door, she very nearly ran away.
Matthew was crying, his cast-bound left arm flailing against the soaked pillows as his right hand swatted away his mother's attempts to wipe his forehead. He was pale, sweating, and unconscious, and her stomach dropped at the sight of him.
But he was calling her name.
He was calling her name, and when she answered, his eyes opened, and for one, long, glorious moment, he looked at her and she knew he was fully conscious, knew he saw her.
She knew he loved her.
He loved her, and it washed over her in a wave of joy and fear, desire and longing, like wine and firelight as she held his hand and watched him try to kiss her fingers as he slipped back into unconsciousness, as she watched his face relax, and she knew it was because of her.
He wanted her, and she had, for the first time in the six years she had known him, given him what he wanted.
She could not get enough of looking at him in that moment, realizing with a blush that he was naked beneath the bedclothes, the hard muscles of his arms and shoulders visible, his chest bound with straps to hold the broken and cracked ribs in place. She ached to touch him beyond holding his hand, needed to kiss his face and fingers again, had to confirm he was actually real.
So she did what she wouldn't do for any other person under that roof.
It was terrible, and terrifying, and beautiful to hold his hand, his head, to mop his forehead and kiss it when she thought his mother wasn't looking. The deep, angled slices where the surgeons had pulled metal from his stomach should have turned her own stomach, but they didn't, and she found the delicate, methodical swabbing of those stitched lines and craters soothed her own anxiety about his condition as much as it probably soothed him. She did not blush or recoil when his mother had to perform the most intimate of tasks to clean him, only reveled in the fact that it was her voice, her touch, her presence that calmed him.
Nothing salved her soul as much as hearing her own name on his lips.
She was so drunk with love and exhaustion that when Isobel's elbow came in contact with the worst of his broken ribs and Matthew's hand contracted around her own, she barely noticed the damage he'd done.
Only when he was finally quiet, his right hand tightly clasping her own, did the spell break, with the mention of another woman's name.
And with the knowledge that the girl he'd promised to marry was on her way to take her place, whatever had dulled the pain washed away at that moment and she was alone again, in agony, and without hope.
Except that Isobel seemed to understand.
She spent the next night awake, wandering, her hand throbbing, hoping to hear him again, but to no avail. There was no sound from that room. Isobel had come down to dinner that night, along with Lavinia, to announce that he was now sleeping and was safely on the road to recovery.
And Lavinia could do nothing but talk about him at dinner, and for the first time since she'd known Lavinia, Mary genuinely resented her, resented that she had the right to talk about Matthew, the right to touch him and kiss him, the right to love him.
She felt Isobel's eyes on her, and she was determined not to react in any way that would expose her heart.
Every night was agony this way, the invisible knives twisting deeper with every pretty, cheerful word from Lavinia's mouth.
Every day was agony as she walked the grounds with Isis, the half-grown yellow Labrador, willing herself to never look up at the windows, even as she could feel his eyes upon her, as she had always been able to do, even before she knew she loved him.
Every moment when someone would say how well Matthew was looking hurt worse than the one before.
And yet she managed, day after day, night after night, moment to moment, to never reveal that agony, to always seem pleased to hear about Matthew, to always seem cheerful and dismissive of her own injury, to always deflect any attention away from herself.
On that eleventh night, after dinner, she nearly gave it away.
Her father asked her to stay in the dining room with him, an unprecedented breach of the rules they'd clung to during the last four years.
"Murray's coming up tomorrow to explain what happens," he said as he handed her a small glass of port. "I understand why you want to know, but you're still young. You could..."
She stopped him. "Not after what happened, Papa. You know as well as I do no one would have me."
"War changes things."
His smile was sad, a mirror of her own. "I'm not going anywhere anytime soon, I hope you know."
"Of course you're not." She watched him drink, memories of thousands of evenings stretching out behind her, of this part of her world forever shut off to her because she wasn't a boy. "But when it does happen, I want it settled and perfectly clear. I don't want to have to ask him for anything."
He nodded thoughtfully at that, and sat back in his chair. "They'll still be your family, you know. You can't completely cut yourself off from them."
Oh, yes I can, she thought to herself.
She'd hoped to talk to Sybil after dinner, but Sybil and Lavinia were already deep in conversation by the time she reached the drawing room, and Mary didn't have the energy to try and join it after the discussion with her father. She had not expected him to grant her request so quickly, to bring Murray up so she would understand how the money long intended as a dowry would be settled upon her after his death, and the fact he had agreed so quickly made her a little sad. It meant he, like her mother and grandmother, had finally given up on her.
She was about to give up on the evening when she overheard Lavinia and Sybil.
"It becomes easier." Sybil's voice was tired, and Mary recognized the new edge to it, the hope of youth lost to years of nursing, of seeing the worst that men can do to one another. "You get used to it."
"I don't think I ever will get used to it," Lavinia said. "It's been so hard with Matthew. He doesn't want to be a burden on me and the nurse really is better at all of it."
Mary could not breathe.
How could Lavinia even think it was a burden, when it was Matthew lying there, needing her? How could she not want to help him, to soothe him, to be near him every second of the day? How could she come down to dinner and leave him behind, alone in that room when he might want something. That nurse wasn't enough. He needed someone who loved him in that room, someone who would kiss his pain away, someone who..
She stood up so quickly that she nearly fainted from the blood rush. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to bed." She half-heartedly waved at her sling. "Good night."
As her eyes roved the room, politely, to include all in her exit, she saw Isobel, and could not bear what she saw in her eyes.
And she waited until she was in the hallway to run, past the footman whose name she could never remember, up the stairs, and down the long corridor to the safety of her room, where she, once the virtuous eldest daughter of an earl, now a fallen woman to be pitied, could cry in peace for all she had lost and all she would never have.
Now she could not sleep.
She had heard the clock strike eleven and twelve, and yet her eyes remained open, curled up as she was in her favorite chair, wrapped in that same silk dressing gown that still smelled faintly of him.
And she thought of him, and her ears strained, as they had night after night, to hear any sound from him, hoping she would, as Isobel noted, know he needed her.
She did not expect the sign would come directly from Isobel, who, when Mary opened the door just after the clock struck one, said simply to her, "He needs you."
Like before, she did not bother to knock.
But instead of Matthew in bed, she found him seated in an armchair, chest bare under his open dressing gown, staring out the window.
"Matthew," she began, and he started up out of his seat, his good hand grasping its back for balance.
"What are you doing here?" he hissed, clearly furious, and her heart, which had soared at the thought that her Matthew needed her again, sank lower than she thought possible.
"I... Never mind. I'm sorry." She backed away, toward the door, and turned the knob, blinded by tears.
"How did you break your hand?"
The question hung in the air, and she dared not turn around.
"Cousin Cora said you fell. Riding? Is that what you spend your time doing around here?"
The disdain in his voice was like a slap across the face, clearing away all feeling, except that of cold fury.
"I didn't break my hand."
She turned around to face him and was pleased to see he flinched at the look in her eyes. "I didn't break my hand."
And she watched his beautiful eyes as she had for years, watched as his expression changed, the anger replaced by confusion. She watched as his hand flexed involuntarily, as if some muscle memory struck it. She watched confusion turn to recognition.
"I didn't break my hand," she repeated softly.
Something broke through at that moment, and she saw him take in the full vision of her, the red silk and gossamer white she had worn eleven nights ago, her hair loose as it had been, and his knees buckled. He sat down, heavily, and looked again at his right hand.
"It was you," he whispered.